Injuries are a part of life for any professional footballer, but some are infinitely scarier than others.
For Westfield Matildas star Hayley Raso, news that she’d fractured three vertebrae after a collision while playing for Portland Thorns in the NWSL had her thinking the worst.
It had the potential to throw everything up in the air – including a place at next year’s FIFA World Cup in France and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Thankfully on the road to a full recovery and with an eye towards the tournaments to come, the young Aussie is set to return to the pitch better than ever.
“The bad news is, you’ve broken your back”
Having not long returned from a knee injury which had scuppered her Asian Cup campaign and kept her out of the start of the NWSL season, Raso was playing good football.
The match against Washington Spirit on August 26 was one which Portland were in the driver’s seat for, having gone a goal up thanks to striker Tobin Heath.
“All I remember was that I was running toward goal, my eyes purely focused on the ball in the air,” Raso told pfa.net.au.
“At that exact moment, I felt something hit me from behind and an excruciating amount of pain in my back, that ran through my entire body. I don’t know who was around me at the time, but I cried for ‘help’ over and over again.
“Once the medical team arrived on the field, I was asked numerous questions about ‘where the pain was’, ‘if I could feel my legs’, ‘could I wiggle my toes’. I couldn’t answer any of the questions. I was in shock, I was in agonizing pain, and I just knew that something really bad had happened.”
A stretcher was called, and Raso was rushed to hospital. In what she describes as the worst pain she’d ever felt in her life, a series of CT scans and monitoring by medical professionals had her feeling ‘helpless’.
The blows kept on coming through, and when Raso was told she had completely fractured three of her lumbar vertebrae, she was inconsolable.
“I knew almost immediately that I wasn’t okay, but I don’t think I could have ever prepared myself to hear the words ‘the bad news is, you’ve broken your back’,” Raso said.
“My first thought was – I’ll never be able to walk again. I broke down. So many emotions came over me. All I could think about was, how am I going to live my life like this?
“For me personally, I know I have a high pain threshold and I am usually very brave in these situations but for the first time, I actually felt helpless. This injury was the worst pain I have ever felt in my entire life, and nothing would make it go away.”
The road to recovery
Unfortunately, rehab is nothing new to Raso, who endured eight weeks on the sidelines with that LCL tear back in May.
When the injury is three fractured bones in the spine though, it’s more crucial than ever to make sure things are done right.
It can be a long and lonely process though, which is why Raso is grateful to have her family by her side as she slowly heals up.
“My club, the PFA and the Matildas have been very supportive throughout this injury. My coach stayed with me until 4am the night of the incident, and my athletic trainer stayed back in DC with me for a week, where she sat with me every day, helping out with anything I needed,” Raso said.
“My Dad was actually visiting the US and was at the game watching when I was injured. He was brought down from the stands into the locker room and stayed with me the first night in the hospital. It was such a traumatic experience, so I am very lucky that I had somebody from my family there with me on that first night.
“As for my Mum, she was watching the game live in Australia, and as she heard the news of what happened, she immediately booked a flight over to be with me. She arrived a couple of days later, has been with me ever since, and is staying with me until we can fly back home to Australia.
“I am extremely grateful I have her here to hold my hand and be by my side throughout this. I lost all of my independence, so she has showered me, dressed me, and done absolutely everything imaginable for me, while I’ve been unable.”
The next steps
Raso’s Portland Thorns side have managed to go all the way to the NWSL decider, a huge 1v2 showdown with premiers North Carolina Courage.
“I’ll be at Providence Park on the day of the Championship game ready to support my team. I feel like they have made it this far for a reason, and I know they can win the NWSL title again,” Raso said.
“It doesn’t matter what happens on the day, I’ll be cheering, supporting and helping the girls as much as I can. I really hope they cherish and enjoy these moments because the Championship game is the reason we play all season long.”
Beyond that is the Westfield W-League, where Raso will return to hometown club Brisbane Roar and look to defend the Premiership which her team won last season.
Things are also gearing up on the international stage, with the 2019 FIFA World Cup and 2020 Olympics soon approaching. Raso intends to make her mark at both tournaments.
“Unfortunately, I will be taking some time off to recover from this, but I plan to be back training and hopefully playing again in a few months time,” Raso said.
“I will not be able to travel to Europe with the Matildas and I will also miss the games we are hosting in Australia later in the year, but I have my sights set on the World Cup in France next year, and I know I can achieve that.
“As for W-League, I will only miss some games at the start of the season, so it’s exciting to look forward to making my comeback at home in front of my friends and family.
"I am determined to come back stronger and fitter than ever and I know I can do that. My long-term goals for the next two years are to make the World Cup and Olympic squads, and to consistently play major minutes at these tournaments. I won’t stop until I’ve achieved that.”